There’s no shortage of tacos in Los Angeles. All the carts, trucks and stands I encounter daily hold a promise of something to obsess over. Everyone has their favorites. Here are three to try now.
Tacos dorados estilo San Marcos from the Birrieria San Marcos truck
Unsolicited advice offered while waiting in line at the taco truck is the only advice I’m interested in taking. A woman named Terry (I know this because although she was behind me, her tacos were ready first) struck up a conversation while we waited to order at the Birrieria San Marcos taco truck parked near the corner of Woodley Avenue and Parthenia Street in North Hills. She told me that if I’m ever hungover, to come straight to the truck, order a large deli cup of consommé and it will “fix you right up.”
It was 100 degrees when this advice was given, a little after 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. I was not hungover, and I was not in need of a large cup of consommé. But I will keep Terry’s advice close to my heart for the next time I need it.
What I did order was the birria de res tacos dorados estilo San Marcos.
“We added this new San Marcos-style this summer because it was so hot and we weren’t doing as well with the regular tacos,” owner Nicanor Flores Jr. said during a recent call. “We wanted to do something a little more refreshing.”
He also wanted to do something different from the countless birria tacos dominating his social media feeds.
Flores starts with consommé-swabbed tortillas filled with a heaping portion of birria de res. The birria is Flores’ mother’s recipe from her family in Sinaloa, Mexico, made with chuck, dried guajillo and California chiles, lots of garlic, cumin and achiote.
The tacos crisp up on the griddle, then he stuffs them with shredded romaine lettuce, diced tomato, queso fresco, cotija and a squirt of crema. There’s no accompanying cup of hot consommé for dipping.
The tacos have all the elements of an exemplary crunchy taco: a lumpy, crisp shell, plenty of cool lettuce, ripe tomato and cheese, but with a rich birria filling, saturated with a rust-red juice that’s vivid with threads of chile, cumin and garlic. They're not the piping-hot, melty queso birria tacos you may be used to, but they retain that halo of stewy meat deliciousness associated with the best birria.
Flores said that there’s a good chance the tacos will still be on offer when the weather cools down in the fall. The tacos, like Terry’s advice, are welcome, any time of the year.
Beef rendang tacos from Aldea by Farm Cup
Taco purists may howl, but I’ll eat almost anything tucked into an excellent tortilla. And why not fill it with beef rendang?
Chef Jania Ferrera is making Indonesian-inspired tacos out of a coffee shop, restaurant and bar at the base of the Elysian Apartments in Echo Park. The third location of the Farm Cup coffee shops launched an expanded food menu this summer, giving Ferrera a chance to introduce diners to her Latin-Indonesian cooking.
“It’s Latin cooking with an emphasis on Mexican spices, but I’m also doing Southeast Asian stuff,” she said during a recent call.
Growing up in Chinatown, a neighbor taught her how to make Indonesian food. When she decided to cook professionally, she searched for an Indonesian restaurant, but with few options in the Los Angeles area, she ended up making tortillas at the now-closed Chevys Fresh Mex in Burbank.
She worked for a time at the now-closed Indonesian restaurant Rinjani in Glendale, but longed to keep cooking the cuisine she fell in love with as a child. That early introduction to Indonesian flavors helped shape the menu at her first executive chef job at Aldea by Farm Cup, and it's at the heart of her beef rendang tacos.
Ferrera uses short ribs for her rendang, infusing them with dry coconut curry, cinnamon and piloncillo. The meat is braised for a couple of hours until it's swollen with the curry, buckles and almost shreds itself. It's warmed on the griddle before service for multiple caramelly edges.
It's an intricately spiced arrangement with bursts of lemon grass, makrut lime, star anise, ginger and toasted coconut.
The meat is bundled into a blue corn Masienda tortilla and garnished with a spoonful of mango sambal kicap, a salsa-adjacent chile sauce bolstered by allspice, Thai chiles and an Indonesian sweet soy called kicap manis.
It's a dish that will challenge any established frame of reference you might hold for either beef rendang or tacos. And that's a good thing.
"It's not a traditional rendang," she said. "My cooking really is just like L.A. culture."
Scallop tacos from Holbox
The scallop tacos at Holbox are not new. I can remember ordering them for as long as I’ve frequented Gilberto Cetina’s Yucatán-style seafood counter at the Mercado la Paloma. And for a stretch during the summer, when it’s too hot to think, all I want is a pair of Cetina’s scallop tacos.
Maybe it’s the way the briny smack of the scallops bumps up against the bright heat of the x’catic chile sauce. Or the way the seafood nestles into a bed of slivered fennel, sweet caramelized onions and soft, blistered cherry tomatoes. Or Cetina’s tortillas, supple and highly pliable, providing a rich, corn-intensive vessel. It’s all these things and the way the taco encourages fantasies about Holbox, the small island north of the Yucatán Peninsula.
It's near the top of my post-pandemic travel list. Until I find myself on the island’s warm sand, I’ll daydream about the ocean breeze and the bioluminescent waters while I eat my tacos at the mercado, alongside a group of grumbling DMV employees at the next table.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.